Realpolitik Returns: Western Leaders Turn Cold On Arab Spring
Analysis: Western euphoria about the popular uprisings in the Arab world is dissipating – and being replaced by fatalism. The Western powers clearly have no master plan to take the reins of the situation, and in the end, Iran may end up benefiting the mos
BERLIN - At the height of the giddiness over the fall of the Mubarak dictatorship in Egypt, leading German politicians were putting themselves through the wringer. Too long had the West dealt with Arab despots based on the false assumption that only they could guarantee "stability" in the explosive Middle East. From now on, support of human rights and democracy had to form the basis of a values-oriented foreign policy.
Only a few months later, these views, at least as far as government parties are concerned, appear to have been erased from memory. It's as if this spring's revolutions, which didn't shake up just the Arab world, had never taken place. Now, it's all about the controversial planned sales of tanks by Germany to Saudi Arabia. That golden oldie, "realpolitik," is back. Of course, "human rights considerations must play a role, but international security interests take priority," says German Minister of Defense Thomas de Maizière, adding that Saudi Arabia is "one of the most important anchors of stability in the region."
The opposition would be a good deal more credible in its indignation about the tank deal if it had also complained when the German government refused participation in the military intervention to protect Libyan revolutionaries against mass murders perpetrated by Muammar Gaddafi's forces. Or if it kicked in full-on about the West's ongoing inaction in the face of Syrian death and torture squads acting against its own people.
Western political elites are secretly hoping there may be some respite, just a short breather, from the Arabic revolution, which is becoming overwhelming. This second phase of the "Arab Spring" bears no resemblance to the high-flying expectations awakened by those great marches to freedom spawned by the overthrow of the Tunisian and Egyptian governments.
From Bahrain to Yemen, Libya to Syria, those first bursts of exhilaration have turned to bloody conflict, and there is widening dissatisfaction among Egyptians with the transition. It has also become clear that the irreversible changes in the region have not ushered in a peaceful and prosperous Golden Age, but rather years if not decades of volatile and potentially extremely violent fights to establish new – and unknown – orders.
The mood of the public in the West is shifting from projected, and often exaggerated, hopes for the Middle East to fatalism. Because NATO bombing in Libya has not yielded instant capitulation from Gaddafi, and Libyan rebels haven't yet come up with a road map to ensure liberal democracy after Gaddafi is gone, many Western pundits have taken to reflecting on a supposedly senseless war. The tenacity of NATO's involvement has, however, brought Gaddafi's fall that much nearer, although admittedly what happens afterwards as Libya tries to forge its future will be no piece of cake. Yet who would seriously argue that Gaddafi should have been left to his own murderous devices to quell the situation so that, order restored, the West could sit down at the same table with him again?
Democratization is more important than stability
As the despotic Sunni regimes fall, the West is increasingly aware of the extent of strategic changes in store for the Middle East. Fear is growing that Iran (and even more, an Iran with atomic weapons) will have the most to gain from this. There is much to be said for ensuring balance by equipping the Saudis with modern weapons – an approach reflected in recent U.S. policy as well.
It would be disastrous to bind realpolitik at any price with the recent fetishistic fixation on "stability." Going back to the old order is not in the cards -- but neither is the drafting of a master plan that would give the West a way to drive future developments in the region. The situations in the various countries concerned are far too diverse and volatile for that.
However, instead of running after situations as they develop, the West must actively steer the inevitable changes in the direction of freedom and the rule of law. It must establish and focus on priorities that have a positive influence on the global development of the region, such as the further democratization of Egypt through strong civil and secular government and institutions, and binding Libya to the West once Gaddafi is gone.
Among the rampant risks of the present Middle Eastern situation also lie unsuspected opportunities. Israel is presently under much less international pressure than it had before the various regional uprisings. No longer are Western governments alone in seeing Israel as an island of stability in a sea of excessive violence and threatening unpredictability.
Even Turkey, eager to boost its image as a hardboiled opponent of "Zionism" and protector of the Palestinians, has at least temporarily de-escalated its tone with regard to Israel. That's the only way to interpret Turkey's withdrawal from the "Gaza Flotilla." Only a year ago Turkish authorities were using the flotilla as an anti-Israel propaganda tool. Ankara's Islamic government has also had to come to terms with the fact that it bet on the wrong horses by wooing Syria and Libya – at a cost of billions to the Turkish economy. To normalize business dealings with Israel would certainly be more lucrative.
This situation offers the West the chance to involve Turkey in joint strategic plans for the Middle East. Tragically, it is just at this decisive period of transition in the region that the United States and Europe are in the throes of massive debt crises that not only reduce their scope for negotiation but make financial support increasingly unpopular. Yet for the West to turn its back on the Middle East could, in the long term, cost it infinitely more than any investment in the future they might make now.
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Photo - Floris Van Cauwelaert